Hidden inside a birthday cake and smuggled out of the country, the 75-minute “effort”, This is Not a Film, tells us all we need to know about the cruelty of the Iranian dictatorship and the courage of film director Jafar Panahi. Panahi, who has given the world such masterpieces as The White Balloon, The Circle, and Crimson Gold was arrested in March, 2010 and faces a ban of twenty years from making films and a six-year prison sentence for “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” This refers to exercising free speech by speaking out against the rigged elected of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
As part of his sentence, Panahi is barred from making films or writing screenplays, is unable to speak in his behalf, and forbidden to leave the country. While awaiting the results of his appeal, Panahi is filmed in his home by fellow director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb using a digital video camera and a cell phone. What begins as an innocuous home movie with Panahi sitting at his table eating breakfast takes on an added dimension when he calls Mirtahmasb, asking him to come by to discuss some ideas, but cautions him not to tell anyone about his visit.
While waiting for his friend to arrive, he talks on the phone with his lawyer who tells him that the court may waive the 20-year ban on filmmaking but are not likely to reduce his jail sentence. When Mirtahmasb arrives, Panahi reads from his latest screenplay which was rejected by the censors. Acting out the story, he puts tape around the area to suggest the apartment in which the story occurs. As he begins to read the screenplay about a young woman forbidden by her parents to attend university, tears come to his eyes and he stops, saying poignantly, “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?” and expresses his regret about the harshness of the penalty he faces.
Soon he takes care of his pet Iguana, Igi, and cares for a neighbor’s dog who doesn’t know the value of silence. As fireworks explode on the streets to celebrate the Persian New Year, a college student arrives to collect the trash as a substitute for the custodian, and the two engage in a dialogue that remembers the day when Panahi was arrested. To bring home the point even more forcefully, Panahi watches as a TV newscaster proclaims that fireworks are illegal. What started out as a home movie at the end becomes an act of non-violent protest.